It was just after dawn on Aug. 24 when the city of Harbin, in northeast China, awoke to a thunderous crash.
There was nothing on local radio stations to explain what had happened, nor, initially, on the official Xinhua newswire. Local officials were still deciding how they would explain the partial collapse of the city’s new bridge, a $300-million span that had opened with great fanfare just nine months earlier.
But while they dithered, China’s real source for breaking news – the social-networking site known as Sina Weibo – was alive with reports from Harbin residents who were on the scene and telling others what they could see, and speculating about why another newly built piece of infrastructure had crumbled.
“The ramp of the Yangmingtan Bridge collapsed, with four trucks dropping into the river. Unclear how many victims [it was later confirmed that three people had died and five were injured]. They were trapped by shoddy construction,” wrote one of the first Harbin residents to report, posting under an alias. Others quickly noted that it was the seventh piece of sidewalk or road to collapse in Harbin in just nine days.
In their hundreds, the denizens of Weibo began adding more to the online public record, including photographs and shaky mobile phone videos that showed how a piece of the bridge’s on-ramp slid clean off its supports and sent the trucks tumbling onto the road 30 metres below.
By the time Huang Yusheng, secretary-general of the municipal government, made his first statement to Xinhua just before 11 a.m. – he tried to blame overloaded trucks for the disaster – he already had been judged in the court of Weibo.
“It’s not because of overloading. You should blame the Earth for its gravity instead,” one user snarled back.
“In this country, the completion of an infrastructure project lays the groundwork for the beginning of an anti-corruption project,” social critic Li Chengpeng wrote on his Weibo account, which has six million readers. Mr. Li’s comment was forwarded more than 66,000 times.
Welcome to Sina Weibo, a giant speakers corner frequented by about 300 million Chinese, making it the largest national public square in history.
It’s fast, it’s rude and, even though it just turned three years old, it’s a 24-hour-a-day nightmare for government officials across China, who for decades have kept tight control on information. Many have never before been questioned, let alone ridiculed, in public.
The public backlash after the Harbin bridge collapse was just the latest example of how people have used Weibo (pronounced “way-bwah”) to break news, expose corruption and challenge a power structure that has little experience in dealing with public opinion. For the first time, many Chinese can choose which news they want to read and to believe, and let others know what they think about it.
“There was already a growing credibility crisis [in China]. People just don’t believe what the government is telling them. Weibo has drastically exacerbated that,” says Bill Bishop, the Beijing-based author of Sinocism China, a daily email roundup of news and Internet trends.
Weibo’s defining moment came last July when a pair of high-speed trains collided near the coastal city of Wenzhou, killing 40 people. Users trapped on the trains were the first to report the accident, and to call for blood donations to help the injured.
The subsequent online outrage forced the government – after local officials initially tried to cover up the disaster by literally burying one of the train cars – to launch an investigation that eventually laid blame on faulty equipment and a culture of corruption in the Railway Ministry.
Of course, much of the chatter on Weibo – as on Facebook or Twitter– is devoted to celebrities, gossip and sometimes inane updates about people’s day-to-day existences. But it can also be credited with creating the first genuine public debates about previously off-limits topics such as the atrociously polluted air in Chinese cities, the privileges enjoyed by the Communist Party elites, and the country’s hated one-child policy.